Sometimes we get so focused on finding that “perfect” option that we forget about the minimum necessities.
I was recently reminded of this while looking for a new apartment.
Earlier this year, my wife and I made a big decision. We decided to move from St. Louis to Chicago. We were excited, anxious, and pretty afraid of battling our first Chicago winter.
But mostly, we were pumped about finding our new apartment. I spent months checking out apartment listings. And I’ve been amazed at just how many options there are.
My wife and I couldn’t resist it. We started imagining our dream apartment. Huge windows, patio, blocks from an L stop, full amenities, fireplace, bathroom vanity, upgraded kitchen, doorman, private dog park, etc.
Then we took a closer look at what was available. Turns out, having a dog and cat really limits your options.
That’s Mr. Feeny on the left and Cory Matthews on the right. Don’t worry, Feeny and Cory, we’re not getting rid of you. (Yes, I’m a huge Boy Meets World fan.)
It didn’t stop there. Lots of great-looking units didn’t have laundry machines in the unit—one option required you to walk outside to a different building to get to the laundry room!
So, my wife and I went back to the drawing board, this time starting with our non-negotiables.
Finding a great apartment is kind of like finding a great business name. Before you decide to stick with one, you need to make sure it fits all of the minimum requirements.
Creativity is only part of the battle.
When I help creatives at the very start of their business, their focus is usually on finding the right business name. And, hey, I get it. You’re all super right-brained people, and this is a key decision to let your creativity shine in your company. This is the shit we love. This is your business, your passion, your baby. You want to find that perfect name.
Is the name good enough? Is it understandable? Can you pronounce it easily? Does it require a follow-up explanation?
These questions are all important. But they can slow you down if you don’t watch out. Heck, I’m fully confident in your ability to continue brainstorming great ideas for the next 4 months.
But, at bare minimum, it needs to get the job done. On the legal side of things, you need to take certain precautions to make sure that it’s available.
Before you go forward with that brilliant business name you came up with, here are the 5 steps you need to take to make sure it’s available and that you’re not breaking any laws.
1. Find available domain names and social media handles.
The first thing you need to do is check the “online real estate.” Is a domain name available that’s similar to your business? And don’t stop there. What about social media handles and other online platforms that you’ll want to use to create an online space for your business?
2. Search business names in your state.
Just because you found a name you love doesn’t mean it’s available in your state. States don’t let businesses have the same name. That would be confusing, right? So in order to officially form your business, the name has to be unique in your state.
Here’s what you do. Find the Secretary of State website for the state you want to start your business in. Most of these websites have some database for you to run a business name search. For example, Missouri has this page, and Illinois has this one. Then, just type in the business name you have in mind and see if it’s already taken. (Sidenote: If you’re not sure what state to start your business in, just stick to your home state.)
If you’re starting a business in Illinois, this is what you want to see!
Maybe you’re thinking, “Joey, I can skip this step because I don’t plan on forming an LLC or corporation any time soon.” Not so fast. In an earlier post, we talked about how important it is to run your business like it’s official. Whether you have the money to form your business right away or not, you need to plan for it.
3. Check state rules.
This one isn’t a huge deal, but it’s important to keep in mind. States have certain limitations on how you can name your business. These are pretty common sense limitations and they vary by state, so I won’t get into details here.
Here’s an example. My sister is working on a new business. She really wanted to put “Corp.” at the end of the name. She thought it sounded awesome legit. And it did! But there was a problem. Her business was an LLC, not a corporation. In most states, including Missouri, you can’t put an abbreviation in your business name that suggests it’s a different kind of business entity. In other words, limited liability companies can’t have “Corp.” in their names, and corporations can’t put “LLC” at the end of their names.
4. Think about trademarks.
Okay, here’s where things get a little more complicated. Lots of companies have paid to protect their business names with a trademark. By trademarking the business name, other businesses in the same or similar industry are prohibited from using it.
You don’t want to start using a business name and then, months or years down the road, get a letter from another company stating that you’re infringing on their trademark and need to stop using that name. At that point, the business name might be a crucial part of your business, and losing the name could mean losing lots of potential customers.
To avoid all of this, head over to www.uspto.gov, which is the website for the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Specifically, you want to find the trademark search database on that website, which is located here. Then go to Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS).
From there, do a “basic word mark search,” and type in the business name you have in mind.
If the search results come back empty, you’re in the clear. If not, don’t lose hope—it might be the case that the existing trademarks protect completely different types of industries. Talk with an attorney about whether your business would be infringing on any of those trademarks.
This is the best message you can get from the USPTO site!
If you’re thinking about trademarking your own business name, it’s best to talk with an attorney. As an attorney, I can tell you if your name can even be trademarked, and I can navigate through the complicated process of registering for a trademark.
5. Run a (quick!) Google search.
We’re almost finished! The last thing to do is conduct a Google search and see if there are any businesses out there with a similar name. Limit yourself to 15 minutes. The important thing to think about here is confusion. You don’t want your customers stumbling upon a similar business and deciding to go with them over you.
Don’t overthink it.
I know, brainstorming business names can be fun and energizing. But sometimes it can also be an excuse—a way to procrastinate from the real work that needs to be done. Just like how apartment hunting can be used to delay the inevitable hell that is moving. (Seriously, moving is the worst!)
So, before you continue weighing business name options, go through these 5 steps to make sure the name is even available.